Marines on the Line
updated 04/25/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 04/25/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT
On this morning the patrol leader was Cpl. Frank Ryan, 21, of Oradell, N.J. Although he had grown just a few wispy hairs of blond mustache on his lip, Ryan was already a veteran Marine, down to the tattoo on his forearm—"Born to Love but Trained for Killing." Out in front of his men, he scanned the streets for danger—and found it. From the corner of his eye, he sensed a figure coming at him. Before Ryan knew it, one of Hooterville's thousands of Shi'ite Muslims was holding a .22 to his head. The corporal wheeled and faced the gunman—who, it turned out, was all of 10 years old. The youth disappeared into the maze of streets. Later Ryan recollected the incident stoically. "I have an aunt who is married to a Lebanese," he said. "He warned me I would see a lot of kids with guns here. I guess they see us carrying ours and they want to show off."
Last week Corporal Ryan was standing guard duty outside the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit base in West Beirut—a makeshift affair hard by an encampment of the Israeli forces that have occupied the country since last fall—when an Israeli tank triggered a land mine a few hundred yards from the U.S. barracks. "I heard the explosion and suddenly all hell broke loose," Ryan recalls. "The Israelis were firing like crazy, which was wrong. You have to locate an enemy before you can shoot it, but they were firing all over the place. Next thing I knew, they were stuffing the body of a dead Israeli soldier into a plastic bag. I don't think the mine was there before because their tanks are always traveling that road. Somebody snuck out and put it there. There really are people out trying to hurt us."
Separating the violent factions in Lebanon is one of the top priorities of U.S. foreign policy. America's much-traveled peacemaker, presidential envoy Philip Habib, was once again last week attempting to persuade Israel to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. But Beirut's future as a war zone seems assured. In the tense crucible of Lebanon, where the shaky democratic government struggles to survive amid Israeli and Syrian occupiers and the free-lance guerrillas of the Christian right and Muslim and Palestinian left, violence is pandemic. The 1,200 U.S. Marines who are charged to keep the truce—along with the 3,600 French, Italian and British soldiers who make up the rest of the Multi-National Peacekeeping Force—find themselves in the middle distance, where the enemy is often hard to identify. One Marine was killed last fall and three others injured when an American-made cluster bomb left behind by Israeli troops exploded. Five more were injured last month when a Shi'ite Muslim faction lobbed a grenade at a leatherneck patrol. The tank incident was just one of three last week in which Israeli vehicles touched off mines apparently planted by terrorists. The Defense Department believes that the Israelis, not the Marines, were the intended target. But the Marines have complained about the Israelis' free-firing reaction in such situations—one American commander bitterly called it "reconnaissance by fire"—and their worry about the possibility of fatal friendly fire is palpable. "You feel so vulnerable out there," says Cpl. Charles Sherman Jr., 22, of Sacramento. "There's always something waiting to grab you."
Though the tension between U.S. and Israeli troops seems to be decreasing, it has provoked some of the most troublesome confrontations of this mission. Just last month Corporal Sherman's squad had to face down a detachment of Israeli armor at an American checkpoint. "I got everyone in line with heavy weapons to show we were ready if they tried anything," he recalls. "The Israelis had a couple of tanks and armored personnel carriers in front of us. Their barrels were pointed right in my face—they didn't have to say anything to me. Those barrels said it all. They started laughing at us as we patrolled in front of them, and the next thing I knew they were taking our pictures. All the while they'd had their turrets pointed on our barracks. We were finally called back inside, but they just stayed on. It was like they were trying to push us as far as they could."
This tour of Beirut presents the Corps with unique problems. Until March 27 they made their patrols with their guns unloaded. Last month's grenade attack—along with intelligence reports that guerrillas were planning to step up action against the peacekeepers—put ammunition in their weapons. But the Marines are under orders to fire only when fired upon, and as a combat-trained elite in the circumscribed role of police, they are left feeling constrained and uneasy. Says 1st Sgt. James Slawson, 34, of Jackson, N.C.: "Taking a combat force into a situation like this is like taking a hunting dog and turning him into a house pet. Pretty soon he's not a hunter anymore."
The tension of patrol is exchanged in off-duty hours for a numbing boredom. The Marines work in shifts (four hours on duty, eight hours off) around the clock. Unlike their Italian, British and French counterparts, the Marines are not allowed to sightsee or shop in the comparatively peaceful Christian section of East Beirut, nor may they fraternize freely with the Lebanese. So they while away their off-hours drinking at their makeshift "We Can't Shoot Back Saloon"—where the limit is three beers a day. For relaxation they sometimes cook hamburgers at a makeshift grill in their barracks at the former Lebanese University. All Marines are required to put in eight hours of physical training a week, but the Beirut detachment does much more—and goes through endless combat drill as well. "It's funny," Corporal Ryan reflects. "At Camp Lejeune we thought these drills were a real pain in the neck. Now we volunteer to do them to break the monotony."
Among these men, trained to be the world's finest fighting force, the frustration is plain. Now, as the Marines return to barracks after a long night of patrol, the streets of the old Muslim quarter ring with a strange new American cadence: "Two more months now we'll be gone/Shipping out of Lebanon." The words keep them moving, but the thought is more a wish than a hope.